The Laconia incident refers to the controversial events surrounding the sinking and subsequent aborted rescue attempt of a British troopship in the Atlantic Ocean during World War II. On 12 September 1942, RMS Laconia under the command of Capt. Rudolph Sharp and carrying some 2,732 crew, passengers, soldiers and POWs, was torpedoed and sunk by German U-boat U-156 off the coast of West Africa. Operating partly under the dictates of the old prize rules, the U-boat commander, Korvettenkapitän Werner Hartenstein, immediately commenced rescue operations, broadcasting their humanitarian intent on open radio channels to all Allied forces in the area, and were joined by the crews of other U-boats in the vicinity. Heading on the surface to a rendezvous with Vichy French ships under Red Cross banners, with their foredeck laden with survivors, U-156 was deliberately attacked by a USAAF B-24 Liberator bomber. The bomber, which had confirmed and reported the U-boat's intentions and the presence of survivors to higher command, was explicitly ordered to attack the ship anyway. The B-24 ended up killing dozens of the Laconia's survivors with bombs and strafing attacks, forcing U-156 to cast their remaining passengers into the sea and crash dive to avoid being destroyed. The pilots of the B-24 inexplicably reported that they had sunk U-156, and were awarded medals for bravery.
The event seriously chilled the general attitude of Germany's naval personnel towards rescuing stranded Allied seamen, and the commanders of the Kriegsmarine (German navy) were shortly issued the "Laconia Order" by Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz which specifically forbade any such attempt, thus helping to usher in unrestricted submarine warfare for the Kriegsmarine. Neither the US pilots nor their commander were ever punished or even investigated, and the matter was quietly forgotten by the US military until the Nuremburg Trials, when a prosecutorial attempt to cite the Laconia Order as proof of war crimes by Dönitz and his submariners badly backfired and embarrassed the US when the full story of the incident emerged. One international bestseller and numerous articles on the subject have been published, and a 2011 television film produced about the incident.
Summary of incident
In late 1942, a German U-boat sank the British troopship Laconia carrying 463 officers and crew, 80 civilians, 286 British Army soldiers, 1,793 Italian prisoners of war, and 103 Polish soldiers (guards) off the coast of West Africa. After realising that the passengers were primarily POWs and civilians the U-boat started rescue operations while flying the Red Cross flag. A U.S. Army Air Corps bomber flying out of a secret South Atlantic airbase on Ascension Island attacked the U-boat. The U-boat abandoned the rescue effort and left the survivors to drift to Africa. Over half the survivors died. This incident led to German Admiral Dönitz issuing the Triton Null signal on 17 September 1942, which came to be known as the "Laconia Order"; the signal forbade submarine commanders from rescuing survivors from torpedoed ships.
Outside Italy little was known of the details of the Laconia incident even to the present day. Although most of the crew were from Liverpool, most people had not heard the story as it was something not talked about. Due to the treatment of the Italian POWs, the American bombing and the resulting unrestricted warfare, the allies were reluctant to acknowledge that mistakes were made. For his part, Admiral Dönitz' actions in supporting the rescue were opposed by Hitler, who ordered that the sinking of the Laconia be kept secret, and most senior officers. Most present day opposition to telling the story came from the German production teams who worked on the 2010 television drama and who objected to Nazis being shown in a positive light.
For Capt. Sharp, who went down with his ship, it was the second similar Cunard liner he lost to German attacks in just over two years. Sharp was also in command of the RMS Lancastria which was sunk by German bombs on 17 June 1940 off the French port of St. Nazaire while taking part in Operation Ariel, the evacuation of British nationals and troops from France, two weeks after the Dunkirk evacuation.
At 22:00 on 12 September 1942, U-156 was patrolling off the coast of West Africa midway between Liberia and Ascension Island. The submarine's commanding officer, Korvettenkapitän Hartenstein, spotted a large British ocean liner sailing alone and attacked it. The Italian POWs were left locked in the cargo holds as the ship sank, but most escaped by breaking down hatches or climbing up the ventilation shafts. Several were shot when a group of POWs rushed a lifeboat station and a large number were bayoneted to death in attempts to prevent them boarding the few lifeboats available. Although there were sufficient lifeboats for the entire ship's complement including the POWs, heavy listing prevented half from being launched until the vessel had settled. By this time most survivors had already entered the water and many of the remaining lifeboats were launched with few passengers. Only one life raft left the ship with POWs on board with the rest jumping into the ocean. Survivors later recounted how Italians in the water were either shot or had their hands severed by axes if they tried to climb in a lifeboat. The blood soon attracted sharks.
Sharks darted among us. Grabbing an arm, biting a leg. Other larger beasts swallowed entire bodies. — Corporal Dino Monte POW
At 22:22, the liner, sailing under the name Laconia, transmitted the following message on the 600-metre band:
- SSS SSS 0434 South / 1125 West Laconia torpedoed
signifying "under attack by submarine". Despite further messages being sent, there is no record that any were received by any station or vessel.
As Laconia began to sink, Hartenstein surfaced in order to capture the ship's surviving senior officers. To his surprise, Hartenstein saw over two thousand people struggling in the water.
Survivor Jim McLoughlin states in One Common Enemy that Hartenstein asked him if he was in the Royal Navy, which he was, and then asked why a passenger ship was armed, stating, "If it wasn't armed, I would not have attacked." McLoughlin believes this indicates Hartenstein had thought it was a troop transport rather than a passenger ship; by signalling to the Royal Navy, Laconia was acting as a de facto naval auxiliary. Ships armed with guns (which most merchantmen and troop transports were) fell outside the protection from attack without warning and the requirement to place survivors "in a place of safety" (for which lifeboats did not qualify); therefore, it made no difference if she was a troop ship or a passenger ship, the Laconia was a legitimate target.
Hartenstein immediately began rescue operations. Laconia sank at 23:23. At 01:25, 13 September, Hartenstein sent a coded radio message to Befehlshaber der U-Boote (Commander-in-Chief for Submarines) alerting them to the situation. It read:
The head of submarine operations, Admiral Dönitz, immediately ordered seven U-boats from the Eisbär group that was gathering to take part in a planned surprise attack on Cape Town to divert to the scene to pick up survivors. Dönitz then informed Berlin of the situation and actions he had taken. Hitler was furious and ordered that the rescue be abandoned. Admiral Raeder ordered Dönitz to disengage the Eisbär boats, which included Hartenstein's U-156, and send them to Cape Town as per the original plan. Raeder then ordered U-506, commanded by Kapitänleutnant Erich Würdemann, U-507, under Korvettenkapitän Harro Schacht and the Italian submarine Cappellini to intercept Hartenstein to take on his survivors and then to proceed to the Laconia site and rescue any Italians they could find. Raeder also requested the Vichy French to send warships from Dakar and/or Côte d'Ivoire to collect the Italian survivors from the three submarines. The Vichy French, in response, sent the 7,500-long-ton (7,600 t) cruiser Gloire from Dakar, and two sloops, the fast 650-long-ton (660 t) Annamite and the slower 2,000-long-ton (2,000 t) Dumont-d'Urville, from Conakry, French Guinea, and Cotonou, Dahomey, respectively. Dönitz disengaged the Eisbär boats and informed Hartenstein of Raeder's orders, but he substituted Kapitänleutnant Helmut Witte's U-159 for U-156 in the Eisbär group and sent the order: "All boats, including Hartenstein, only take as many men into the boat as will allow it to be fully ready for action when submerged."
U-156 was soon crammed above and below decks with nearly 200 survivors, including five women, and had another 200 in tow aboard four lifeboats. At 06:00 on 13 September, Hartenstein broadcast a message on the 25-metre band in English (and plain language) to all shipping in the area, giving his position, requesting assistance with the rescue effort, and promising not to attack. It read:
If any ship will assist the ship-wrecked Laconia crew, I will not attack providing I am not being attacked by ship or air forces. I picked up 193 men. 4, 53 South, 11, 26 West. ― German submarine.
The British in Freetown intercepted this message but, believing it might be a ruse of war, refused to credit it. Two days later, on 15 September, a message was passed to the Americans that the Laconia had been torpedoed and the British Merchant ship Empire Haven was en route to pick up survivors. The "poorly worded message" implied that the Laconia had only been sunk that day and made no mention that the Germans were involved in a rescue attempt under a cease-fire or that neutral French ships were also en route.
U-156 remained on the surface at the scene for the next two and a half days. At 11:30 on 15 September, she was joined by U-506, and a few hours later by both U-507, and the Italian submarine Cappellini. The four boats, with lifeboats in tow and hundreds of survivors standing on their decks, headed for the African coastline and a rendezvous with the Vichy French surface warships that had set out from Senegal and Dahomey.
During the night the submarines had become separated. On 16 September, at 11:25am, U-156, with a Red Cross flag draped across her gun deck, was spotted by an American B-24 Liberator bomber from Ascension Island. Hartenstein signalled to the pilot in both Morse code and English requesting assistance. A British officer also messaged the aircraft: "RAF officer speaking from German submarine, Laconia survivors on board, soldiers, civilians, women, children."
Lieutenant James D. Harden of the United States Army Air Forces did not respond to the messages, and turned away and notified his base of the situation. The senior officer on duty that day, Captain Robert C. Richardson III, who claimed that he did not know that this was a Red Cross-sanctioned German rescue operation, ordered the B-24 to "sink the sub". He later claimed that:
- He believed that the rules of war, at the time, did not permit a combat ship to fly Red Cross flags.
- He feared that the German submarine would attack the two Allied freighters diverted by the British to the site.
- He assumed that the German submarine was rescuing only the Italian POWs.
- In his tactical assessment, he believed that the submarine might discover and shell the secret Ascension airfield and fuel tanks, thus cutting off a critical Allied resupply air route to British forces in Egypt and Soviet forces in Russia.
Harden flew back to the scene of the rescue effort, and at 12:32 attacked with bombs and depth charges. One landed among the lifeboats in tow behind U-156, killing dozens of survivors, while others straddled the submarine itself causing minor damage. Hartenstein cast adrift those lifeboats still afloat and ordered the survivors on his deck into the water. The submarine submerged slowly to give those still on the deck a chance to get into the water and escape. According to Harden's report, he made four runs at the submarine. On the first three the depth charges and bombs failed to release, on the fourth he dropped two bombs:
The sub rolled over and was last seen bottom up. Crew had abandoned ship and taken to surrounding lifeboats. — Lieutenant James D. Harden
The crew of the Liberator were later awarded medals for the alleged sinking of U-156 when they had in fact only sunk two lifeboats.
Ignoring Commander Hartenstein's request that they stay in the area to be rescued by the Vichy French, two lifeboats decided to head for Africa. One, with 68 people on board, reached the African coast after 27 days with only 16 survivors. The other was rescued by a British trawler after 40 days at sea. Only four of its 52 occupants were still alive.
The order given by Richardson has been called a prima facie war crime. Under the conventions of war at sea ships, including submarines, engaged in rescue operations are held immune from attack.
Post-bombing rescue operations
Unaware of the attack, U-507, U-506 and the Italian submarine Cappellini continued to pick up survivors. The following morning Commander Revedin of the Cappellini found that he was rescuing survivors who had been set adrift by U-156. At 11:30am Revedin received the following message:
Bordeaux to Cappellini: Reporting attack already undergone by other submarines. Be ready to submerge for action against the enemy. Put shipwrecked on rafts except women, children, and Italians, and make for minor grid-square 56 of grid-square 0971 where you will land remainder shipwrecked on to French ships. Keep British prisoners. Keep strictest watch enemy planes and submarines. End of message.
U-507 and U-506 received confirmation from headquarters of the attack on U-156 and were asked for the number of survivors rescued. Commander Schacht of U-507 replied that he had 491, of which fifteen were women and sixteen were children. Commander Wurdemann of U-506 confirmed 151, including nine women and children. The next message from headquarters ordered them to cast adrift all the British and Polish survivors, mark their positions and instruct them to remain exactly where they were and proceed with all haste to the rescue rendezvous. The respective Commanders chose not to cast any survivors adrift.
Five B-25s from Ascension's permanent squadron and Hardin's B-24 continued to search for submarines from dawn till dusk. On 17 September, one B-25 sighted Laconia's lifeboats and informed the Empire Haven of their position. Hardin's B-24 sighted U-506, which had 151 survivors on board including nine women and children, and attacked. On the first run the bombs failed to drop, U-506 crash dived and on the second run the B-24 dropped two 500 lb bombs and two 350 lb depth charges but they caused no damage.
On 17 September, the British at Freetown sent an ambiguous message to Ascension informing them that three French ships from Dakar were en route. Captain Richardson assumed the French intended to invade Ascension so the submarine hunting was cancelled in order to prepare for an invasion.
The French cruiser Gloire picked up 52 survivors, all British, while still 60 miles from the rendezvous point. The Gloire then met with the sloop Annamite with both meeting U-507 and U-506 at the rendezvous point at a little after 2pm on the 17th. With the exception of two British officers kept aboard U-507, the survivors were all transferred to the rescue ships. The Gloire sailed off on her own and within four hours rescued another 11 lifeboats. At 10pm the Gloire found another lifeboat and proceeded to a planned rendezvous with the Annamite. At 1am a lookout spotted a light on the horizon, which was investigated despite this meaning the Gloire would not be able to make the rendezvous, and a further 84 survivors were rescued. A new rendezvous was arranged, the ships meeting at 9:30am with the Annamite transferring her survivors to the Gloire. A count was then taken: 373 Italians, 70 Poles and 597 British who included 48 women and children. The Gloire arrived at Dakar on the 21st to resupply before sailing for Casablanca, arriving there on the 25th. On arrival, Colonel Baldwin, on behalf of all the British survivors, presented Captain Graziani with a letter that read as follows:
We the undersigned officers of His Majesty’s Navy, Army and Air Force and of the Merchant Navy, and also on behalf of the Polish detachment, the prisoners of war, the women and children, wish to express to you our deepest and sincerest gratitude for all you have done, at the cost of very great difficulties for your ship and her crew, in welcoming us, the survivors of His Majesty’s transport-ship, the Laconia.
The submarine Cappellini had been unable to find the French warships so radioed for instructions and awaited a response. The French sloop Dumont-d’Urville was sent to rendezvous with the Cappellini and by chance rescued a lifeboat from the British cargo ship Trevilley, which had been torpedoed on the 12th. After searching for other Trevilley survivors without luck, the Dumont-d’Urville met the Cappellini on the 20th. With the exception of six Italians and two British officers, the remaining survivors were transferred to the Dumont-d’Urville. The Dumont-d’Urville later transferred the Italians to the Annamite, which landed them at Dakar on the 24th. Of Laconia’s original complement of 2,732, only 1,113 survived. Of the 1,619 who died, 1,420 were Italian POWs.
From Casablanca, most of the survivors were taken to Mediouna to await transport to a prison camp in Germany. On 8 November, the Allied invasion of North Africa began liberating the survivors, who were taken aboard the ship Anton which landed them in the United States.
One of the survivors, Gladys Foster, wrote a detailed description of the sinking, the rescue and then subsequent two-month internment in Africa. Gladys was the wife of Chaplain to the Forces the Rev. Denis Beauchamp Lisle Foster, who was stationed in Malta. She was on board the ship with her 17-year-old daughter, Elizabeth Barbara Foster, travelling back to Britain. During the mayhem of the sinking the two were separated and it was not until days later that Gladys discovered her daughter had survived and was on another raft. She was urged to write her recollection not long after landing back in London. Elizabeth married Major Peter Charles Crichton Gobourn in 1953. She died in Cheltenham in January 2010 at 82 and was survived by her three children and seven grandchildren.
Doris Hawkins (missionary nurse, SRN, SCM) survived the Laconia incident and spent 27 days adrift in Lifeboat no. 9, finally coming ashore on the coast of Liberia. She was returning to England after five years in Palestine, with a 14-month-old girl named Sally who was lost to the sea as they were transferred into the lifeboat. Doris Hawkins wrote a pamphlet entitled "Atlantic Torpedo" after her eventual return to England, published by Victor Gollancz in 1943. In it she writes of the moments when Sally was lost: "We found ourselves on top of the arms and legs of a panic-stricken mass of humanity. The lifeboat, filled to capacity with men, women and children, was leaking badly and rapidly filling with water; at the same time it was crashing against the ship’s side. Just as Sally was passed over to me, the boat filled completely and capsized, flinging us all into the water. I lost her. I did not hear her cry even then, and I am sure that God took her immediately to Himself without suffering. I never saw her again." Doris Hawkins was one of 16 survivors (out of 69 in the lifeboat when it was cast adrift from the U-boat). She spent the remaining war years personally visiting the families of people who perished in the lifeboat, returning mementos entrusted to her by them in their dying moments. In Doris's words, "It is impossible to imagine why I should have been chosen to survive when so many did not. I have been reluctant to write the story of our experiences, but in answer to many requests I have done so; and if it strengthens someone’s faith, if it is an inspiration to any, if it brings home to others, hitherto untouched, all that 'those who go down to the sea in ships' face for our sakes, hour by hour, day by day, year in and year out – it will not have been written in vain".
The Laconia incident had far-reaching consequences. Until then, as indicated in point #1 of the "Laconia Order", it was common for U-boats to assist torpedoed survivors with food, water, simple medical care for the wounded, and a compass bearing to the nearest landmass; it was extremely rare for survivors to be brought on board as space on a U-boat was barely enough for its own crew. Now Dönitz prohibited rescues; survivors were to be left in the sea. Even afterwards, U-boats still occasionally provided aid for survivors.
At the Nuremberg Trials held by the victorious Allies in 1946, Dönitz was indicted for war crimes with the issuance of the "Laconia order" as its centrepiece, a decision that backfired on the prosecution. Its introduction allowed the defence to recount at length the numerous instances in which German submariners acted with humanity where in similar situations the Allies behaved callously. Dönitz pointed out that the order itself was a direct result of this callousness. The Americans for example had practised unrestricted submarine warfare, their own "Laconia order", which had been in force since they entered the war. Fleet Admiral Nimitz, the wartime commander-in-chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, provided unapologetic written testimony on Dönitz's behalf at his trial that the U.S. Navy had waged unrestricted submarine warfare in the Pacific from the very first day the U.S. entered the war.
The prosecution has introduced much evidence surrounding two orders of Dönitz, War Order No. 154, issued in 1939, and the so-called Laconia Order of 1942. The defence argues that these orders and the evidence supporting them do not show such a policy and introduced much evidence to the contrary. The Tribunal is of the opinion that the evidence does not establish with the certainty required that Dönitz deliberately ordered the killing of shipwrecked survivors. The orders were undoubtedly ambiguous and deserve the strongest censure.
The evidence further shows that the rescue provisions were not carried out and that the defendant ordered that they should not be carried out. The argument of the defence is that the security of the submarine is, as the first rule of the sea, paramount to rescue and that the development of aircraft made rescue impossible. This may be so, but the Protocol is explicit. If the commander cannot rescue, then under its terms he cannot sink a merchant vessel and should allow it to pass harmless before his periscope. The orders, then, prove Dönitz is guilty of a violation of the Protocol. (Emphasis added)
In view of all the facts proved and in particular of an order of the British Admiralty announced on 8 May 1940, according to which all vessels should be sunk on sight in the Skagerrak, and the answers to interrogatories by Admiral Chester Nimitz stating unrestricted submarine warfare was carried on in the Pacific Ocean by the United States from the first day of the Pacific War, the sentence of Dönitz is not assessed on the ground of his breaches of the international law of submarine warfare.
The journal, International Law Studies, covers interpretations of International Law during armed conflicts and how these laws were applied by each party. In Volume 64 chapter IX The Law of Naval Operations, the Laconia incident is examined in the context of International Law applying to submarine warfare in World War Two.
The person who issued the order to attack and the aircraft commander who carried it out are both prima facie guilty of a war crime. The conduct of the aircraft commander appears to be entirely inexcusable since he must have observed the rescue operation. During the time that they are engaged in such an operation, enemy submarines are no longer lawful objects of attack. The fact that the US Army Air Force took no action to investigate this incident, and that no trials took place under the then-effective domestic criminal code, the Articles of War, is a serious reflection on the entire chain of military command.
The two-part drama under the name The Sinking of the Laconia is a 2010 British-German co-production written by Alan Bleasdale, directed by Uwe Janson, and with Andrew Buchan, Brian Cox, Ken Duken (playing Hartenstein), Lindsay Duncan, Thomas Kretschmann and Franka Potente playing the leading roles. In the United Kingdom, BBC 2 broadcast it on 6–7 January 2011. In Germany and Austria, ARD and ORF respectively broadcast it on 2–3 November 2011 under the title Laconia. In Canada, TVOntario broadcast it on 6, 13 and 15 November 2011. On April 14, 2012 OvationTV began airing The Sinking of the Laconia in the United States. On the nights of 2 and 3 November 2012, the show aired in Australia on the Seven Network. The program was shown in New Zealand on Sky Television's Prime Channel on the nights of January 6 and 13, 2013.
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- The Sinking of the Laconia
- Italian submarine Cappellini
- Unrestricted submarine warfare
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- Alan Bleasdale returns to BBC after long absence BBC January 5, 2011
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- Although the Polish guards were armed with rifles with fixed bayonets, they were not loaded and the guards carried no ammunition. Witnesses recount that few of the POWs had been shot (presumedly by British troops) and that most had been bayoneted.
- La Condanna A Morte Di 1800 Prigionieri Di Guerra Italiani (The death penalty for 1800 Italian prisoners of war) History of Italy. (in Italian)
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- "Amphibian Patrol Squadrons (VP-AM) Histories: VP-AM-1 to VP-AM-5" (PDF). United States Navy. December 2003. Retrieved 2006-09-05. According to the official after-action report by the U.S. Navy, all four submarines were present. Survivor accounts in One Common Enemy and The U-Boat Peril say the Italians arrived later.
- Origin of the Laconia Order by Dr Maurer Maurer and Lawrence Paszezk, Air University Review, March–April 1964 and The USAF Oral History Interview – Brig-Gen. Robert C. Richardson III (K239.0512-1560) 18–19 May; 14 June 1984, USAF Historical Research Center, Maxwell AFB AL
- The Nazi with a heart: U-boat skipper who ruthlessly torpedoed a British ship then defied Hitler to rescue survivors Daily Mail January 6, 2011
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- The San Remo Manual lists enemy vessels that are specifically exempt from attack or capture, on the basis of either treaty law or customary law: (ii) vessels engaged in humanitarian missions, including vessels carrying supplies indispensable to the survival of the civilian population, and vessels engaged in relief actions and rescue operations;
- Mallison, Sally & Thomas (1993). "Chapter IX; The Law of Naval Warfare: Targeting Enemy Merchant Shipping". International Law Studies 64: 53–55 112.
- The Laconia Incident Various survivor accounts of the incident.
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- Michel Thomas Poirier Results of the German and American Submarine Campaigns of World War II Chief of Naval Operations Submarine Warfare Division 1999
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- McLoughlin, Jim (2006). One Common Enemy: The Laconia Incident: A Survivor's Memoir. Australia: Wakefield Press Pty. ISBN 978-1-86254-690-5. and also ISBN 0-948065-77-X
- Grossmith, Frederick (1994). The Sinking of the Laconia, A Tragedy in the Battle of the Atlantic. ISBN 1-871615-68-2.
- Hawkins, Doris (1943). Atlantic Torpedo - The record of 27 days in an open boat following a U-boat sinking. London: Victor Gollancz.
- Blair, Clay (1998). The Hunted, 1942–1945. Random House. ISBN 0-679-45742-9.
- Peillard, Leonce (1963). The Laconia Affair. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons. ISBN 0-553-23070-0.
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- The Laconia Incident on Uboataces.com
- The Laconia Incident on Uboat.net
- An account from Helen Charles, a survivor of RMS Laconia
- Excerpt from The Hunted, 1942–1945
- The Sinking of the Laconia TV mini series
- Link to the CWGC record of one of the RN sailors killed in the incident